May 22, 2024 - News

Records contradict why students were arrested at UH protest

Photo of people protesting outside of the Harris County Joint Processing Center

Protesters gather at the Harris County Joint Processing Center on May 8 after police dismantled a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Houston and arrested two students, who were later released. Photo: Shafaq Patel/Axios

When police broke up a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Houston this month, they said they arrested a student for assaulting an officer. Two weeks later, there's no evidence that anyone at the protest was charged with such a crime.

Why it matters: The reason given for the arrest contradicted the organizers' contention that the protest was peaceful.

  • Protesters and state Republican leaders have been promoting dueling narratives of recent protests at multiple universities: peaceful and educational, versus hate-filled and disruptive.

Catch up quick: Pro-Palestinian organizers set up an encampment at UH's Butler Plaza on the morning of May 8 urging the university system's regents to divest from supporting Israel and corporations that fund its war efforts in Gaza.

  • Police officers from several different agencies, including the UH Police Department, dismantled the encampment later that morning but allowed the protest to continue.
  • Two people, identified by the university only as students, were arrested as police moved in on the protesters.

Later that day, UH spokesperson Kevin Quinn told Axios and several other media outlets that one of the students was arrested for failing to identify themselves and that the other was arrested for assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.

  • A Harris County Sheriff's Office lieutenant later told the Houston Landing that a male student was facing a felony charge of assault on a police officer and a female student was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing.

Yes, but: An Axios review of court records contradicts UH's statement.

  • Records show two charges filed by the Harris County District Attorney's Office based on arrests by the UH Police Department on May 8: A man charged with misdemeanor evading arrest/detention and a woman charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass.

How it works: When police officers make an arrest, prosecutors review the evidence and determine what charges to file.

  • In Harris County, prosecutors routinely review arrests by police officers to determine the likelihood of charges holding water before a judge.
  • If prosecutors believe an allegation by police won't stick in court, they'll sometimes reduce the charge before it's filed so they don't have to dismiss the case later.

The other side: When asked May 9 about the apparent discrepancy — and to identify the people who were arrested — Quinn told Axios the university was unable to provide any more information, citing an "ongoing criminal matter."

That same day, Axios asked the DA's office to confirm that those two people facing misdemeanor charges were those arrested by UHPD during the protest.

  • Joe Stinebaker, director of communications for the DA's office, declined to do so. In a later email, Stinebaker said "keep resending and it will end up in the top of our 'blocked' box."

In follow-up emails to Quinn and UH President Renu Khator's office the next week, Quinn affirmed the university's stance on withholding the information.

  • A representative for Khator's office did not respond.

Dig deeper: After nearly two weeks of not receiving answers from Stinebaker or any other DA spokesperson, Axios on Tuesday emailed Jennifer Keith, the prosecutor who signed off on the two May 8 misdemeanor charges, asking why she did not accept UHPD's initial allegation that one of the protesters assaulted a police officer.

  • Stinebaker, to whom Keith appeared to have forwarded Axios' email, replied saying it was a "bad decision on your part" to pose the question directly to the prosecutor. Keith did not respond.
  • Stinebaker and other DA spokespeople did not answer follow-up questions asking for the probable cause that UHPD officers presented alleging someone had assaulted a police officer.

Of note: The students' defense attorney, John Floyd, did not respond to a request for comment.

What's next: The man and woman arrested by UHPD on May 8 are due back in court next month.

avatar

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Houston.

More Houston stories